I was born in this city. Born in it, lived in it for almost two decades until the first time I left it; then came and went numerous times more before leaving for the last and longest time. This time. Or I can speak of this time as the last but just tentatively, because one never can assert with finality what only time and chance can ultimately decree. And Los Angeles, after all, is a gravity well, with a long long tether, possessing an uncanny ability to suck back the unwary escapee.
I should mention that it was never my city, not my town. I neither loved nor belonged to it; chafed, in fact, to flee it; but it took a round-the-world odyssey—so I could finally return and suffer my first dose of genuine culture shock—to enlighten me to the fact that I was born with a chronic case, which had only remained undiagnosed through an error of etiology.
So that when I returned there again for the last holiday season—a simple visit—it was with the fundamentally altered perspective of someone who has lived in a relatively city-free lifestyle for a dozen years. I stayed with my brother and sister-in-law and their twenty-month-old son in a charming little two-bedroom apartment in Montrose, which, they tell me, has become one of the more desirable communities in that quadrant of the city. Walking down the main street of the fashionably quaint shopping district, one sees why: a dearth of graffiti, of poverty, of conspicuous crime; pleasant shops, abundant pedestrians, cafes with streetside tables; shade-trees and benches along the narrow roadway, skillfully contoured to reduce traffic speed and enhance the village ambience. Andrew, the twenty-month-old, runs with the swing-hipped lope of the toddler, with utter unconcern and abandon, as three adult humans ride herd on him, making sure that one can reach him before he approaches too near a curb or driveway. Passersby watch their step as he comes barreling along, and inevitably smile, even the gruffest of them.
Walking, you see. You see the surfaces of the immediate surroundings, as well as beneath them—if only you are inclined to look. See Andrew run—feet slapping concrete. Despite the anomalous presence of shade-trees, the nearest approximation to honest soil—stick-your-fingers-in-it soil—is the sand in the cylindrical ashtrays standing outside businesses, studded with butts.
Drawing back my perspective I suddenly feel—like a wave of fever in a chronic illness (mine, of course)—the utterly unyielding nature of every surface. As we cross the occasional sidestreet or well-positioned driveway, I look up to see the reassuring palisade of the San Gabriel Mountains, their own illness from long proximity to the city less evident at this distance.
We’re a walking sort of family. But to walk on actual earth in Los Angeles, you have to drive first. I badger my brother until he transports us to a park at the base of the Verdugo Mountains, which form a roughly elliptical island in the valley, encompassed by city. As we ascend toward the top on this spectacularly clear day (friends remind me that there are maybe twenty days each year that are this gorgeous; the rest evoke the Los Angeles I fled), the valley floors drop away, the edges of perception recede, horizons unroll, until we can see such distances as one rarely sees in Southern California: the Chatsworth Hills curtailing the further spread of city at that end of the valley; the shimmering Pacific and even, through the binoculars, ships anchored off San Pedro; the ghosted silhouette of Santa Catalina. And everywhere: the city. As far as we can see, the city stretches farther; here and there, hills too rugged to build on protrude from it as from a sea. It stretches beyond even this day’s clarity, blending, finally, with the sky; vanishing around the earth’s curvature: a consummation of manifest destiny.
Late afternoon. Even backlit, the next ridge over swells emerald with the lush new growth attendant upon winter’s early storms. Some hikers descend in silhouette, incremental at long range: watching their steps, or skipping madly, they nevertheless inch along. Behind them, the concrete channel of what passes in this city of illusion for a river glimmers golden in the long sunlight; the skewed quadrilinear pattern of streets, with random freeways stitching through in brighter flow and sparkle, overlays all the recumbent earth, the urban mural slashed by the ridgeline like a billboard half-torn, revealing last month’s model as partial palimpsest beneath.
We move to the other side of the mountain, and try to pick out my brother’s apartment from all its neighbors. It should be easy. We know the neighborhood from walking it. It is a desirable neighborhood. Only now, from just a handful of miles away, a few hundred feet above, it eludes us. We know we are near, squinting through the binoculars. But what seems a neighborhood, desirable and quaint, from within itself, loses itself into the grander scope of sprawl from another angle. Perhaps from any other angle. Defeated, we descend. We hope that, at street level, the apartment will have regained its proper station.
In the dining area, adjacent the kitchen, adjacent the living room, we sip tea while my sister-in-law tends the toddler with impressive calm. Outside the window a squirrel makes its sinuous way along the top of a cinderblock wall that bisects the avenue of dead space between this building and the next. (Like most of the other inhabitants, the squirrel is not a native; it and all its kin originated back east. Native squirrels are rare, and shun the city.) The squirrel, if determined, could leap to either building. I raise my eyes to the shaded window opposite.
“Who lives there?” I ask.
My brother looks at me in an uncomprehending way. I understand, then. This is the city. Not so much that danger is everywhere, as that it might be. The shades are drawn. If he did know who lived there, it might be remarkable. Perhaps, in this city, knowing too many of your neighbors might even be actionable.
Another day, another part of town; now I’m nearer the ocean, walking with my sister. We pass a Jaguar dealership; we pass a BMW dealership; we pass a Rolls Royce / Bentley service garage. I remark to my sister: “All these cars.” She says, “The number, or the kind?” I say, “Yes.” She says, “Over on Santa Monica, that’s where all the dealerships are.” “Then what’s this?” I ask. “This?” she says. “This is just the leftovers. What wouldn’t fit over there, I guess.”
What strikes me, finally, more than anything else, is the overwhelming abundance of stuff. In the three miles or so that it takes us to walk from my sister’s apartment to the theater where we will watch a movie that cost more to make than would feed many third-world nations for a year, we pass at least five sushi bars, a half-dozen computer stores, restaurants, bars, car dealerships, at least three major supermarkets, banks past counting, beauty salons, coffee bars, a couple of shoestores. There’s one place of business, undeniably retail, with large geometrical shapes of various colors, constructed of colored steel mesh like freeform cages, hung above the doorway. It gives the appearance of some highly controversial public art piece under construction.
“What is that?” I ask my sister.
“It’s a store.”
“But what kind? What do they sell?”
“Stuff,” she says. “Weird stuff. You know, like toys but not for kids? Junk. Little statues. I don’t know. I don’t shop there.”
Stuff. A whole store of stuff that is beyond category. A cornucopia, a cityful of stuff—stuff that I don’t want, stuff that I couldn’t afford even if I did want it; above the stuff rise vast billboards telling me about stuff that I shouldn’t be foolish enough to try to live without.
I flash back to the hilltop view of my brother’s neighborhood, and it assumes a new and sinister aspect: crowded warrens of human habitations interspersed with throbbing arteries and ganglia of merchandise: and suddenly I see, prisoned in the whole, a viscous convectional current of interchange between people and stuff, only it becomes difficult—no, impossible—to determine whether it is stuff supplying the people’s needs or vice versa. People slaving to buy stuff, to stuff stuff into their living quarters, to pay the costs of living in the living quarters so that they have a base of operations from which to venture out and spend their waking hours working for funds to pay for the base of operations and for the stuff to fill it with . . .
“So tell me about where you live,” an old friend asks me, one evening before I come back to what has become home.
I think for a moment. Then I say, “When I step outside the door of my trailer, I can’t see another human habitation.”
There is a pause. Eyes widen.
“Don’t you get lonely?”
I was born in this city. I spent most of two decades in it; learned to walk, to talk, to read, to drive in it; became rather well-acquainted with my own little corner of it; and, when I was able, I made my escape.
Lonely? But which is more eloquent of solitude: the neighbor hidden behind intervening acres of heavily tenanted (though not by humans) woodland; or the faceless neighbor a rubber-band shot away behind a never-raised window-shade?
“Sometimes,” I say. “Don’t you?”
Or is loneliness synonymous with solitude? Are they even the same language?
I will admit that there is virtue in the city. I still like sushi, movies, music, art. I admire fine architecture, and the thrill of abstract discourse. Yet there is twenty-month-old Andrew running merrily along Honolulu Street, veering at windows, pedestrians, and any window with any semblance of a dog in it, on it, or over it. People can be born here, and grow up strong and whole and sound. It is possible; but it isn’t easy. I’m not sure I will ever understand why so many of us choose to live in such surroundings. On the other hand, that we do choose at all might be an erroneous assumption which renders the question moot. In which case we must consider reexamining . . .
But the holidays have passed. Now day is ending; the moon is on the wax, a week, perhaps, from full. A doe saunters by my window, preparing to take her chances with the two-lane state highway just outside. Odds are in her favor; they cross here several times each day, and casualties on this stretch of road are rare. Later, unless it clouds, the stars will emerge in a rich jostling pantheon across the dome of sky. During my visit to the city, I remember someone exclaiming one night because the whole Big Dipper was visible.
I was born in the city. I lived half my life there, more or less. But the long long tether: it was me that cried out at the visible constellation; me who, a dozen years later and half a state away, living in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada out of sight of any human habitation, can still look up at the night sky, at the vastness of all creation revealed, and feel a momentary shock of surprise.
And I keep coming back to Andrew, accelerating toward his second birthday. In his minuscule and valiant form all the pathos, the hope and horror and paradox of our world, our history and our destiny, are embodied, encoded, germinant and restive toward tomorrow. How many stars will shine in his skies? How closely will his life conform to the shape of the stuff surrounding it?
He was born in the city. He took his first steps, spoke his first words there. The rest remains to be written.
Lawrence Blair Goral
7 January 1998